Camp: An Antidote to Stress?

Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN
November 2016

At a recent gathering, a group of camp professionals were talking about stress. They mentioned how it seemed fairly pervasive among campers and staff, sometimes at debilitating levels. Then they said that for some youth, especially returning campers and staff, camp arrival triggered a huge sigh of relief and seemingly low stress levels. Exuberant comments like "I'm back!" and behaviors such as running pell-mell around camp provided solid testimony to their delight, a freeing of their spirit and a drop in their stress level. It took new people more time to experience that. Indeed, their camp integration was more tenuous, and they often appeared put off by the rousing spirit of returning folks. These newbies were quieter until someone or some magical camp experience allowed exuberance to touch them also.

Interestingly, both groups are experiencing stress. Returning campers and staff recall the glory of last summer; they tend to ride those highpoints in hopeful anticipation that this summer will be just as good. Meanwhile, the new folks are trying to sort out a world that's very different from home. One does all kinds of new things at camp and even undresses in front of people one really doesn't know. There aren't street lights, only starlight or flashlights, and bushes come right up to the path's edge instead of being cut back like at home.

Adjusting to camp — or readjusting for returning folks — triggers stress. Most campers and staff have the resiliency and coping skills to weather the process just fine. Others do not. These are the individuals whose behavior, if we take time to notice, cues us to their stress. They're peripheral in their group, the rowdiness of others causes them to shy away, some may be teary-eyed while others act out, and the list goes on.

While a given counselor may note and respond to his or her campers' behavior cues, other staff do not. In addition, camp leadership often uses a different framework for assessing stress than that used by counselors. For example, a unit head or camp director may use noise level as a barometer of camp energy. A noisy dining hall, loud shouts during various games, and spontaneous singing indicate that campers and staff are engaged. All is well. But then, around day four of a session or perhaps into week three, something else hits. Tempers flare. Those shouts carry an angry edge to them, and caring campers and staff start showing more "beast" than "beauty."

Any of these may be stress indicators. The majority of campers and staff effectively use coping skills to handle it, but others struggle with the process. Some stress is actually good for us; it provides the gentle kick-in-the-seat-of-our-pants that's needed to focus on a particular situation. But stress can also be overwhelming or so constant that it wears a person down. Then we tend to revert to protective behaviors. We shut down, become overly emotional, can't think straight, or show other atypical behavior. Such actions are understandable when demonstrated by young children, a group still learning how to cope with stress. But as a person ages, there's an expectation that the individual becomes more adept at handling stress.

Now factor in these elements of the camp experience: always being around other people and the tension between a camp's need to "appropriately supervise" and an individual's occasional need for solitude. All in all, the big picture makes it dicey for a camp professional to shape the camp experience so it allows latitude for stress responses and coping. How are camps responding?

Camp Strategies to Minimize and Cope with Stress

These three strategies may be helpful:

  • Providing options during the camp day for solitude activities
  • Providing a place where campers and staff can go when feeling overwhelmed 
  • Mindfully coaching staff to both monitor and appropriately respond to their own stress as well as that of their campers.

Audit your camp schedule and activities. What activities are available for campers who need more solitude and how deep are those options? Are the staff of these activities aware that some campers may be there precisely for that more laid-back, quiet time? It's probably not necessary for quiet activities to be an option all the time, but having them available periodically during each day is helpful, especially for campers who have a more labile emotional profile.

The second strategy is to provide a designated place for people who need alone time (see sidebar). The location for this may be as simple as a picnic table placed strategically outside the window of the camp secretary's office so he or she can surreptitiously keep an eye on people who are there. Or perhaps it's the camp library. The location should be quiet and allow the are those options? Are the staff of these activities aware that some campers may be there precisely for that more laid-back, quiet time? It's probably not necessary for quiet activities to be an option all the time, but having them available periodically during each day is helpful, especially for campers who have a more labile emotional profile. The second strategy is to provide a designated place for people who need alone time (see sidebar). The location for this may be as simple as a picnic table placed strategically outside the window of the camp secretary's office so he or she can surreptitiously keep an eye on people who are there. Or perhaps it's the camp library. The location should be quiet and allow the person to do what he or she needs. That might be reading, drawing, writing a letter, listening to music (via headphones), or simply just sitting. The point is to recognize that most humans don't like to be around others all the time; we need our alone moments. Some need this more than others and, if you're a young person coping with a mental, emotional, or social health (MESH) concern, that need to unplug and get away from others may be even more necessary. So think about your camp; where can people go to "get away from it" should they need to?

The third strategy utilizes staff to monitor and appropriately respond to both their stress and that of their campers. This sounds like it may be easier said than done, especially because staff members are often older adolescents, still learning about their own stressors and refining their coping methods. One camp professional spoke about anticipating stress points for staff. He massaged their response by talking about the upcoming trigger in advance and discussing how they might not only self-monitor but also look out for one another (e.g., anticipatory guidance). This director also debriefed following the event, a process that allowed staff to reflect on and evaluate their response, a skill that helped them be more mindful when the next stress-provoking event occurred.

Along with being aware of their personal stress response, staff also benefit from a frank conversation about how one works with a group of youth as they approach a stressful situation. Repeating the anticipatory guidance process can be a useful tool; staff used it among themselves and can now use it with the campers. Along with that, however, flesh out their tool kit by teaching some simple therapeutic communication skills. These skills include techniques such as:

  • Posing open-ended questions
  • Restating a person's comments to check if the message was correctly heard
  • Labeling the emotion expressed by the speaker
  • Clarifying messages by asking further questions

The communication techniques are designed so the person doing the talking (the camper) feels both heard and understood by the listener (staff). (Need more information? Google "therapeutic communication skills.")

Youth with MESH Concerns

For youth with MESH concerns, stress can be especially troublesome, particularly when the stress-eliciting experience is prolonged or overwhelming. These youth typically don't have the resiliency of other campers and may have more limited coping skills. So, in the face of prolonged or overwhelming stress, they tend to overreact or withdraw (shut down).

Now place one of these at-risk youth in a camp setting. If this is a returning camper, the young person probably had a successful previous camp experience, so some of the stress associated with being brand new is alleviated. But other stressors remain. One must learn about the kids in this new summer's group. Staff have changed; what're they like? Some things are new at camp too; perhaps there are new programs or a changed schedule or expectations associated with being a returning camper. These are stressors. And because this camper has a MESH concern, the likelihood that he or she will need time to process camp adjustment in a quiet setting increases. Does the camp program allow for this? Is someone keeping an eye on that adjustment, someone who makes sure this camper's schedule provides time to "chill out" and who checks in with the camper to verify that things are okay?

Stress-relieving strategies are even more critical for new campers with a MESH concern. If anything, they cope with more stress as they strive to incorporate camp information, even things as basic as finding the way between their cabin, the dining room, and various activities. The point is that youth with a MESH concern tend to:

  • Perceive more stressors in their environment
  • Respond with higher levels of stress than their peers
  • Need time and space to process their experience(s)
  • Benefit from having someone check in periodically

These youth appreciate — perhaps even need — a camp that provides an option for solitude, having a place to go when alone time is needed, and knowing who on the camp staff will check in with them.

Stress Differs from Anxiety

Although associated and often used interchangeably, these two terms are different. Stress arises from the pressures we feel that are associated with life situations. One can typically identify the source of stress (e.g., job, new experience, first date, conference presentation). Anxiety is a pervasive feeling of apprehension or doom that is typically not related to a specific life situation but rather to what might happen. Anxiety's pervasiveness means the person tends to retain the feeling, whereas stress tends to dissipate when the trigger situation is over (CapitalEAP, 2016).

Both stress and anxiety cause physical reactions such as increased blood pressure as well as cognitive responses (e.g., shutting down, not thinking straight).

Stress, however, is generally a normalized human feeling that may be triggered by both positive and negative situations. Because it's tied to a specific event — that upcoming new camp job, for example — most people effectively work through their stress even though it can feel overwhelming when several stressors pile up. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a generalized state of being, one that may present as persistent nervousness, fear, apprehension, and/or worrying. Anxiety may also be associated with other MESH concerns (e.g., obsessive-compulsive behavior, AD/ HD, social phobias).

From a camp perspective, it's best to ask more questions when words like "stressed" or "anxious" are used to describe someone. A caring probe for more information often gives one cues as to what might be helpful and provides reinforcement for having a designated place for people to go when they need to process feelings such as these. ACA's tool, "Assessment of a Camper's Behavior of Concern" (2016), is a helpful guide to this conversation.

In summary, recall that stress is a normal response from all people. It can, however, be triggered by camp characteristics that are considered normal to camp: specifically, the tendency for camp life to keep one around others all the time and the tension between a camp's need to adequately supervise and the individual's occasional need for solitude. These tensions tend to be amplified if a person has a MESH concern. A growing number of camps are recognizing this and proactively responding by providing a place for people to experience needed alone time, staff who sensitively check in with campers, and identifying activities that can be solo experiences.

How does your camp measure up?

Setting Up a "Chill Out" Room at Camp 
Gabe Chernov, director of Birch Trail Camp for Girls in Wisconsin, is developing a "Chill Out" room at his camp. He wrote: "What would you put in it? I was thinking about books, cards, Legos, beanbags, and some toys that are very hands-on (like bendy/tangle therapy toys)."

Here are more ideas for such a space:

  • Provide letter-writing and drawing supplies (e.g., paper, crayons, markers, etc.).
  • In addition to comfy beanbag chairs, also consider a card table with chairs, perhaps a couple of overstuffed chairs, huge throw pillows, and/or a rocker.
  • Think about using lamps for lighting the area. An overhead light is okay, but that can be harsh sometimes.
  • Also consider the flooring. Carpet encourages a more relaxed mood, but add directions for those entering to leave their shoes at the door so cleaning that carpet isn't too much of a chore.
  • Consider how the space is ventilated. Are there windows for cross-ventilation, a ceiling fan, or perhaps an air conditioner?
  • How might music be incorporated? Is there access to outlets? Will you allow campers to use (selected) electronic devices?
  • Think about supervision. Perhaps your location makes this a non-issue, but some options include using a baby monitor with the receiver at an appropriate desk, staffing the area with a counselor who's working on a camp project, and/ or having the room within eyesight of an appropriate staff member.

Once the space is created, consider its ambiance, its "feel." Is it welcoming? Do the colors, lighting, and other elements contribute to relaxing?

Involve campers in this project. Indeed, developing it might be a great service project for counselors-in-training or another group. Also engage them in developing the rules governing use of the space and/or in naming the spot.

 

Have You Taken the Mental Health First Aid Course?
ust as familiar first aid courses prepare one to effectively respond to illness and injury, a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course prepares one to respond to individuals with a mental, emotional, and/or social health (MESH) challenge. The Healthy Camp Initiative strongly recommends that camp professionals get this eighthour training. It can be set up as an ACA section training, as a pre-conference event, and/or be done at a camp. More information is available.

 

Additional Resources
For more information on MESH issues, refer to these Camping Magazine articles:

References

American Camp Association (2016). Assessment of a camper's behavior of concern. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/sites/default/files/resource_library/research/Psychological-Assessment-Form-Direction-MESH.pdf

CapitalEAP (2016). The difference between stress and anxiety. Retrieved from https://capitaleap.org/blog/2012/12/09/thedifference-between-stress-anxiety


Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN, is the program coordinator for Bemidji State University's Certificate in Camp Nursing (MN). Her experience includes over 30 years as a year-round camp nurse for Concordia Language Villages and deep experience in working with camp professionals to address camp health needs. She currently chairs ACA's Healthy Camps committee where her time at camp as well as her former role as executive director for the Association of Camp Nurses now contributes to her educational and research activities.